Thought-provoking, slow-cooked content is making a comeback.
In a world of mass-produced, fast-food publishing, some content creators are experimenting with the idea that going gourmet is the best way to stand out. The secret ingredient? Interactive design.
To see where content might be heading, consider these five landmark achievements of the long-form variety:
I. Snow Fall
Released at the end of 2012, “Snow Fall” originated as an essay researched and written by The New York Times’ John Branch, and it would go on to win a Pulitzer. “Snow Fall” soon grew into a much more grand endeavor, however, when Editor Joe Sexton and the paper’s interactive and design teams decided that the piece lent itself to a more immersive experience.
“Snow Fall” weaves animation and interactive design together to re-imagine its subject, a horrific avalanche in the Washington Cascades that irrevocably changed the lives of the skiers and rescue workers featured across the story’s six chapters. Scrolling activates beautiful title frames and animation that sweeps you through the landscape, and video interviews fade in from a backdrop of white. The result is an engrossing and haunting account of the natural disaster.
After months of experimentation and revisions, the project was unveiled last December to widespread acclaim — particularly for its visual splendor, built on a foundation of jQuery, HTML 5, Underscore, and jPlayer. Though its technical elements have since been scrutinized, “Snowfall” has had a massive influence on subsequent multimedia storytelling.
II. The Jockey
The New York Times followed up “Snow Fall” with “The Jockey,” released in August. This long-form narrative by Barry Bearak operates like a documentary, complete with videos activated by user scrolling, voice-over narration, and race-day imagery that sets the scene.
Each transition into an embedded video is powerful; the last lines of dialogue detach from the prose and fade into black at the center of the player, creating an echo effect. The dialogue then fades away, replaced by a visual interlude narrated by the author. The custom ads integrated into the piece are also noteworthy as a way to monetize the “Snow Fall” model.
The piece creates a unique sense of intimacy between reader and subject, and it’s expected that this piece could win the Times its second Peabody Award in as many years.
III. Greenland Melting
Rolling Stone published its own experimental essay in July, recreating a feature written by Jeff Goodell. The piece documents glaciologist Jason Box’s struggle to upend the climate-science establishment by generating awareness and activism for Greenland’s glacier melting. The gravity of the problem is conveyed through seamlessly-integrated footage of the melting arctic ice by digital animator Francis Oh, and a series of stunning pictures that bring the issue to life.
The images illustrate the adverse environment in which Box fights to compile his research, and Box’s prophetic words superimpose over videos of glacial landscapes, heightening the reader’s sense of alarm.
The story’s final image is of a helicopter parked on a Greenland ice shelf. Two scientists work apart, drilling beneath the ice for answers, as the last words of the article trail off into the sky above. After a barrage of bold fonts and foreboding pull quotes and statistics, the visually-subtle closing resonates strongly.
Perhaps nothing engages an audience quite like fire, as Pitchfork’s innovative profile of Daft Punk has attracted plenty of readers. In “Machines For Life,” the text emerges from beneath a title frame of flames as Ryan Dombal’s story begins. A quick scroll through the feature feels like an ambush, as numerous portraits of the helmet-clad legends continuously slide into frame. A background of white transitions to a night sky and back again, making the piece feel as wild and alive as its subjects.
Similar to Rolling Stone’s “Greenland Melting,” the text and design mesh best at the end. Fire and black smoke dance behind the text, and the effect is imaginative and atmospheric.
Pitchfork has chosen to keep its feature free of advertising and instead focus on the user experience. “Machines For Life” saw several hundred thousand visits within its first week of publication, with an average visit of approximately six minutes.
Excuse the self-promotion, but it would be remiss of us not to plug our own experiment in marrying long-form content with interactive design. Using the visual design tools offered by Scrollkit, we created “Brooklyn Took It,” a deep look into how one brand – The Brooklyn Nets – used storytelling to re-imagine itself. It’s been one of the most popular pieces published by this magazine, and if you get a chance, definitely check it out.
Get Your Long-Form On, Brands
So what can brand publishers learn from these five pieces? That audiences are still eager to engage with long-form storytelling, especially when it does something new and exciting. More than 3 million read “Snow Fall,” and The Jockey has attracted its own share of attention. “Machines For Life” was a smash hit for Pitchfork and “Brooklyn Took It” continues to earn the largest audience of any of our published work.
Are these pieces perfect? Of course not. The visuals can be moderately distracting at times, but imperfection is expected for any new experiment in form. For brands, interactive long-form content provides the opportunity to be associated with powerful traits: innovation, hipness, and – most importantly – a high level of quality.
The potential to connect with hundreds of thousands of consumers doesn’t hurt, either.
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